Efforts to organize a group of Unitarians in Wayne County, Ohio, first began in 1958. On February 15, 1958, Eleanor Spital wrote to Munroe Husbands at the Office of Extension Ministries and Fellowships at the headquarters of the American Unitarian Association, in Boston. She was writing on behalf of ten residents of Wayne County, to request materials and resources to begin gathering with a Unitarian focus. Mr. Husbands responded, sending the requested materials, and encouraging the group. The group, which became known as the Unitarian Fellowship of Wayne County, met for discussions, on Sunday evenings, at 7:00 p.m., twice a month, at the local Y.M.C.A. In November of 1958, they wrote to Walter Kring at the A.U.A., applying to become a Unitarian Fellowship. Their application was accepted.
However, in 1959, the A.U.A. notified the Fellowship that it would be placed on the A.U.A. inactive list for non-payment of annual dues. No effort was made to make a minimum payment. And there is no record that the Fellowship applied to become reinstated to active status.
Cliff Bushnell was President for the first six years. Austin Pease became President in 1964, in an effort to revive the Fellowship.
In 1964, Lowell Steinbrenner came to Wooster. He inquired about UU churches or fellowships in the area, and was given Austin Pease’s name to contact. Austin told Lowell that there was a UU Fellowship, but it met irregularly, on Sunday evenings, in people’s homes. He further stated that the Fellowship did not have a Religious Education program for children, something Lowell was specifically seeking. Austin Pease’s efforts to revive the Fellowship were ultimately unsuccessful. By 1968, it no longer existed.
Of that original group, Cliff Bushnell and Austin Pease later became involved with the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Fellowship that flourishes in Wayne County today.
In 1972, local businessman Lowell Steinbrenner placed a newspaper ad that invited others with similar beliefs to join him in the discussion of founding a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Wayne County. [Since, in 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists in the United States merged to become the UUA, this freshly-formed Fellowship did not have the same name as the earlier Unitarian group.] Members of the community responded and held a series of organizational and steering committee meetings. On April 23, 1972, nineteen charter members met to adopt a constitution, elect officers, and sign the membership book. Their names are: Lois Bailey, James A. Bailey, Joanne Downs, David Drumm, Merilyn “Lynn” Drumm, Robert Ewing, Beverly Ladd, Curt Leben, Margaret Leben, Gene Meyers, Helen Meyers, Letty Nault, Lowell “Skip” Nault, Austin Pease, Delene “Dee” Perley, Ruth Riffel, Becky Steinbrenner, Lowell Steinbrenner, and Dorothy Still. That meeting was held at Freedlander Park Chalet, in Wooster. Some of the early organizational meetings were at the Steinbrenners’ home, a former schoolhouse. Lowell Steinbrenner served as the first President of the Fellowship.
Their first official Sunday worship service was held in rented space at the Union Grange Hall in Madisonburg, on September 17, 1972. The group’s purpose was to meet for weekly Sunday morning worship services, including readings, hymns, and a speaker, and religious education for children, led by Letty Nault. Most of the members had children. The Fellowship met at the Union Grange Hall in Madisonburg, which it rented continuously for twenty-three years, during the regular church year.
During the group’s organizational period of time, they were assisted and encouraged by the Rev. Gordon “Bucky” McKeeman, who was serving as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron. The Unitarian Universalist Association voted the Fellowship into membership as a congregation on January 26, 1973. On Sunday, April 29, 1973, the Fellowship held a service of celebration of the official granting of their charter. The Rev. David Cole led the program, on the theme of, “Our Heritage.”
In 1991, Mary Hnottavange-Telleen was engaged to provide part-time ministerial services as a consulting minister. She was followed by Barbara Cooke (1992), who began at ¼-time and grew to ½-time by 1996, when she was succeeded by V. Elaine Strawn, who assumed full-time status in 2010.
By 1996, our 62 members had accumulated a growth fund sizeable enough to purchase the first permanent building, which was located on the corner of Saybolt and North Columbus Avenues in Wooster.
Once we had our own building, our membership began to grow, and we grew our religious education programming and staffing, accordingly. Our first Director of Religious Education, Georgia Jaeb, was hired on a ¼-time basis in 1999. She was followed by Marge Thomas, Nancy Hurt, and then Chelsea Churpek, with Karen Skubik briefly serving as an interim director for a medical leave. What began as a ¼-time position is now a half-time Director of Religious Education position. We also added part-time staff positions to support bookkeeping, the choir, and music.
By 1999, Sunday mornings were crowded so we started the process of finding a new, larger building. Ultimately, we decided to build, and we moved to our new home at 3186 Burbank Road in October 2005 with 123 members. In 2006 our new building received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, the first for a place of worship in the United States. In 2008—36 years after the newspaper ad that led to the UUFWC—our 170 member fellowship was named a Breakthrough Congregation by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The UUFWC has a history of active social action work, as well. LGBTQ individuals have always been welcome at our Fellowship, and we have been a Unitarian Universalist Association Welcoming Congregation since 2001. In addition, Ohioans for Marriage Equality—now the LGBTQ Equality Group—began at the Fellowship in 2003 and continues to pursue its goal of educating members and the public about the discriminatory realities faced by gay and lesbian couples and transgender individuals.
With regard to the environment, our Fellowship—in partnership with the Wayne County Sustainable Energy Network and Third Sun Solar—installed a 23.52 kilowatt solar array on our rooftop in 2013 to replace a significant amount of fossil/nuclear electricity formerly purchased by the Fellowship. In spring 2016, we earned our certification as a UUA Green Sanctuary Congregation and continue to be involved in a number of programs—for example, Adopt-a-Highway and the recycling of inkjet cartridges and paper.
Moreover, we maintain active involvement in other social justice issues, as well. In 2017-2018, for instance, UUFWC volunteers donated nearly 1500 hours to UUFWC social action programs such as Adopt-a-Class with Head Start, Behind Bars & Beyond transition program, and our own Racial Justice Working Group. Nearly $17,500 dollars via donations and fundraising cycled through our Social Action Committee during that same time period to support UUA Disaster Relief, Fair Trade, microfinance, a school district’s greenhouse project, and a community foodbank, among other worthy causes.
In fall 2018, on the basis of a strategic planning committee report in 2014, the UUFWC launched a capital campaign to raise monies for the expansion of our building. We have, as of January 2019, raised $1,129,000 toward that end.
Today, the UUFWC has staff members in facilities management, youth ministries, membership, music, religious education, and a full-time minister. We also have a congregational administrator, Anne Wilson, who is half-time. The UUFWC has continued to grow and, as of January 2019, we have 193 members.